Unlocked: Finding Long-Term Career Opportunities with a Public Health Degree

Published on: Aug 14, 2023

The emergence of COVID-19 has brought public health to the forefront of the world’s attention in the past few years, but there seems to be a major gap in qualified talent to fill roles. Thanks to international travel, global health issues are not going to be isolated within countries and regions, but instead impact the world at large. As we saw with COVID-19, an outbreak in China was quickly followed by cases in New York. Now, the world is dealing with secondary and tertiary effects of COVID-19, like the troubling new data pointing to an increase in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) for Black babies three times higher than the rate for White babies1. There are many reasons to pursue a public health degree for graduate school, not the least of which is the potential for a varied and interesting career.

While qualified public health professionals couldn’t be more in demand, it is essential to understand what you can do with a masters in public health (MPH) prior to pursuing a public health degree. While some undergraduate institutions offer a public health major, completing an undergraduate public health program is typically not a requirement for admission into a masters in public health program. Public health professionals have many potential career trajectories in a variety of settings. In the next few paragraphs, we’ll discuss the wide range of public health careers available to someone with an MPH and the settings in which these jobs occur.

Some public health jobs are directly related to health care and are based within hospitals and community health centers, however the impact of these roles extend far beyond traditional patient care. These jobs may suit someone with existing health care or health administration experience, or someone looking to expand the impact of most health care jobs by bridging the gap between a more traditional hospital job and public health.

Examples of hospital-based jobs that would be appropriate for someone with an MPH are:

  • public health nurse: focused on preventative care and education with the goal of keeping people out of health care facilities 

  • infection prevention specialist: assesses the risk of someone developing an infection due to poor hygiene practices while staying at a hospital and comes up with strategies to minimize those risks

  • health services manager: leads a small group of health care providers within a practice or department, with responsibilities for financial oversight 

  • healthcare administrator: a career with high level of responsibility, focused on improving hospital activities and ultimately patient outcomes

Some of these jobs, such as public health nurses and health care administrators, might best suit someone mid-career who has professional experience in health professions like nursing and direct patient care or health care management, or who is interested in pursuing a master of public health in conjunction with another professional degree like a JD or MS in Healthcare Administration. Others may pursue a job in health services from an interest in behavioral science. 

A relatively new hospital-based career in public health is that of health informatics. This field grew out of the larger healthcare industry and developed as a result of the availability of data in electronic health records (EHRs) and has grown rapidly in the last 20 years. A key component of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was the increased use of EHRs to improve the accuracy and speed with which laboratory data with patient test results are transferred to health care facilities2. While this data is essential for doctors and nurses to make treatment decisions, the availability of accurate and real-time data allows public health professionals to track disease outbreaks in communities. 

Someone working in health informatics reviews de-identified patient data from electronic health records and analyzes trends to improve healthcare delivery and in turn improve health outcomes for patients. One federally qualified health center in Boston, MA that serves a primarily non-English speaking patient population saw improvements in colorectal cancer screenings and diabetes control in patients, with staff also reporting improved follow-up for pediatric visits.  

In a community health setting, someone with an MPH could work directly with patients and the public often to support population health as a community health worker or health education specialist. Community health workers and health education specialists fulfill similar roles focused on educating community members on public health issues like sexual health and nutrition, and work with specific groups to address health disparities. Many of the jobs available to a public health educator are a combination of developing educational curriculum on health issues, delivering content to participants, and planning events for the public like community health fairs.

Some public health education professionals focus on issues like public health nutrition or mental health for personal reasons, or choose a focus based on the greatest needs of their specific community. Community health workers have been shown to improve outcomes for patients following an abnormal mammogram and increase compliance with gynecological testing3,4

Public Health Professionals Are In High Demand by Government Agencies

The government is a major public health employer, with labor statistics estimates of the number of state-level government employees at almost 100,000 people and local-level at almost 150,0005. Further, spending on healthcare in the U.S. has skyrocketed since the 1960s and shows no signs of stopping6. These numbers are expected to rise in the next decade based on current trends, suggesting ample employment opportunities for recent MPH graduates5.

Employment opportunities may include developing health policy, working as an epidemiologist, in environmental health and in occupational health and safety. Epidemiology has been a cornerstone of public health since the conception of public health as a distinct field from medicine, most notably with the discovery of how cholera spreads in a community7. Today’s best popular culture example of an epidemiologist is likely Kate Winslet’s character in the movie Contagion, as she tried to trace the origin of a deadly virus and prevent its spread.

Other public health career options that are often government-based include communicable disease program managers, emergency planners, and data analysts. These jobs occur in a wide variety of settings, some of which are traditionally office-based and others that are field-based especially if they have an environmental health science focus.

The government is also typically the setting public health policy careers. Career opportunities could be with a large organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or at the local government level with policy tailored to the specific needs to that community. Policy-related public health jobs have a broad range of applications and are designed to positively impact health by changing laws and regulations to improve population health. These jobs can be suitable for someone who has a passion for a specific public health topic, as well as for someone who is generally interested in health promotion and wants to use public policy as an avenue to positively improve health.

Well-known examples of successful public health policy that might be discussed in graduate school are seatbelt laws that are credited with reducing injury and death following enactment and the addition of fluoride to drinking water to lessen the prevalence of cavities8,9.

A Career in Public Health: Where to Start

Prior to beginning your public health education, the prospect of finding a job following graduation from your MPH program can be daunting given so many unknowns: what will the job market be like, what might be happening nationally to impact hiring trends, and whether there will be too much competition from others with similar degrees and experiences. There are a variety of resources available to students to aid in a job search.

Many MPH programs have students complete a practicum (i.e., internship) in addition to coursework as a graduation requirement so that students can have a lived public health practice experience. This serves as an opportunity both to have practical experience as a public health professional while still in school and can serve as a networking opportunity for a job following graduation. 

Similarly, there are many national public health conferences, such as the American Public Health Association or National Association of County and City Health Officials conference, which occur annually and encourage students to apply to present their research and offer discounts for students who would like to attend but not present. These conferences are also an opportunity to connect with public health professionals and develop potential career connections.

A Masters in Public Health: A Tool to See Health at a Global Scale

Not many fields generate personal fulfillment, allow the chance to help others, and have a variety of career options and are also increasing in demand for employees. Especially in light of the international crisis caused by COVID-19, the need for talented public health professionals is clear. While other fields are shrinking in job opportunities through automation and changes created by remote work, public health is one of the few fields where the options have grown and skilled professionals are more in need than ever before.

From infection prevention specialists who ensure that people admitted to the health care facilities do not acquire a hospital-based infection, to epidemiologists who track patterns of disease outbreak to stop its spread, to community health workers who target specific health problems in their own communities, the options for someone with an MPH are virtually unlimited.

The first step to having a rich and fulfilling career like these is to explore admissions requirements and start preparing to apply to masters in public health programs.

About the Author

Written by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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